The first measurements of methane emissions from oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are released

by CCAC secretariat - 9 March, 2020
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition supported ground-breaking research, published today, that governments and the oil and gas industry can use to target effective methane emissions reductions, combating a critical short-lived climate pollutant.

One night, on a boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico in early 2018 Tara Yacovitch looked into the water and saw that it was glowing. The wind had died down, creating terrible conditions for measuring the methane emissions she had travelled hundreds of miles for. It was perfect, however, for seeing bioluminescent algae.

“It was such an adventure,” said Yacovitch who is a researcher at Aerodyne Research, Inc. in Massachusetts of the two weeks she spent living on a 12-person boat collecting data about methane emissions, a powerful short-lived climate pollutant emitted by oil and gas extraction, livestock, and wetlands that is dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide. It has a bigger impact on climate change in the near-term which means that targeting it is an important tool in fighting a warming planet. Furthermore, reducing it would have positive effects on human health and crop yields. 

Her work resulted in some incredibly important findings.

Methane flare
The team takes measurements around a methane flare. Flares are designed to burn off unused methane, but sometimes fail to do so completely.

“The big result is that we’ve got a lot of data in the sector where previously there was none,” said Yacovitch. Part of this data includes the fact that the top 2 percent of sites were responsible for 20 percent of emissions— which could prove fruitful when targeting intervention. These are significant findings because, when it comes to global methane emissions, there are still large knowledge gaps. These holes makes it really difficult for governments and companies to reduce emissions in any kind of a targeted way.

This crucial information gathering is exactly the goal of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s (CCAC) OIl and Gas Methane Science Studies, a series of research endeavours measuring methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Each study targets different geographic regions, including urban areas in Europe, the North Sea, and parts of Australia, as well as different segments of the oil and gas supply chain. These studies will be done from airplanes, from boats, and on land. Plans for future studies in a variety of important global oil and gas regions are in the works. 

There is currently uncertainty in the quantity of methane emitted from offshore global oil and gas infrastructure. This study presents a novel method for measuring those emissions that can be applied to offshore facilities across the globe.
Roland Kupers

So far, the Environmental Defense Fund, the European Commission, and the companies of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative have committed $7.2 million to this research. The CCAC, which calls 69 governments and many more civil society organizations members, together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will then work with governments relevant to each study, linking policy and action to help address methane emissions. CCAC’s Oil and Gas Methane Partnership is also helping companies systematically manage their methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations.

Yacovitch’s paper is the first from the CCAC Oil and Gas Methane Science Studies to be published and marks an exciting new chapter in research and action on short-lived climate pollutants. 

"We know enough to act on methane, but we don't know everything. Better data on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector will give decision-makers the courage and the support to act — so that companies and governments can confidently enhance ambition and increase their efforts to tackle climate change and air pollution in an integrated way," said Helena Molin Valdés, the head of CCAC secretariat.

With better data, oil and gas companies can more effectively prioritize their work to reduce methane emissions and governments can more effectively target policies that aim to do the same. 

Methane leaks occur at various stages of the supply chain, including when it is extracted, processed, and transported. Often, major leaks are due to faulty maintenance which can, in some cases, be relatively easily addressed if the source is identified—such as a loose screw or a valve. Preventing gas leakage during transmission and distribution could reduce emissions from coal mining and the oil and gas sector by over 65 percent

There is increasing evidence that previous estimates of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry have been underestimated. One study recently published in Nature shows that it could be as much as by 25-40 percent.

Research was published by a team of Dutch scientists last year on how accidents in the oil and gas sector can release large amounts of methane in short periods of time. In one natural gas well in Ohio in the United States in February 2018, a single blowout released enough methane to rival a significant percentage of the man-made emissions of several European countries over an entire year. In another example, researchers published work about their search for emissions from mud volcanoes which led them to discover a giant methane plume from an oil and gas field in Turkmenistan. Stopping it, the president of the company who did the research told Bloomberg News, was “the equivalent of taking one million passenger vehicles off the road.” 

Tara Yacovitch, Methane Science Studies researcher from Aerodyne Research
Researcher Tara Yacovitch sits in a beanbag chair to ward off a bout of seasicknesses. Yacovitch spent two weeks at sea collecting data for the Coalition's Methane Science Studies.

There is a particular dearth of data when it comes to measurements of oil rigs in the ocean— in fact there are none in the Gulf of Mexico. In the United States, the majority of offshore oil and natural gas is drilled in the Gulf of Mexico where thousands of platforms are responsible for about 16 percent of the country’s crude oil production.

This is why Yacovitch and her team had to convert their laboratory equipment into something seaworthy, carefully configuring it to function on a boat and then transporting it by road all the way from Massachusetts to Texas before loading it onto the catamaran-style ship they chartered for the research.

“It’s a little scary to watch your $100,000 piece of equipment get mounted onto a crane and lifted into the air,” Yacovitch said of the moment the equipment was transported onto the boat. She’s done measurements on trucks and planes but this was her first marine expedition.

It also took awhile for the captains of the ship to get the hang of the sailing Yacovitch needed for sample collection. Capturing emissions required being down wind and zig zagging to transect the trail of methane multiple times— Needless to say, the opposite of giving passengers a smooth ride.

The trip also involved a surprising lesson: bean bag chairs are the most important piece of equipment on this kind of a scientific mission. 

“You don’t want to be in a rigid office chair when you get seasick, you want to lounge in a bean bag chair,” Yacovitch said of her days spent balancing a laptop on her knees, collecting data.

The stress was worth it, however, for a trip that included sightings of bright pink freshwater dolphin pods feeding where the brown waters of the Mississippi River meets the turquoise waters of the Gulf. It also means that Yacovitch and her team brought home some really important, and sometimes counterintuitive, findings. 

She is particularly excited about the isotopic measurements, which can help give researchers more information about the source of methane, such as whether it came from the bottom of the ocean or a landfill or somewhere else. She’s looking forward to calibrating and refining their dispersion methods, which still have high rates of uncertainties, for future studies.

We know enough to act on methane, but we don't know everything. Better data on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector will give decision-makers the courage and the support to act — so that companies and governments can confidently enhance ambition and increase their efforts to tackle climate change and air pollution in an integrated way.
Helena Molin Valdés

Yacovitch used instruments that continuously sucked in outdoor air using a vacuum pump, giving them unprecedented second-by-second isotope measurements. After tracking 103 different sites, Yacovitch found that a relatively small number of them make up a large proportion of emissions.

“The fact that we find this skewed distribution means that you can do a lot of good in reducing emissions if you find those top emitters,” said Yacovitch. “This is an exciting observation.”

Offshore oil rigs range from tiny platforms without a single person to massive deep water sites maintained by some 300 workers.

“We expected that maybe the emissions from the big rigs would be bigger but we found that wasn’t really the case, the largest emitters were in shallower waters,” said Yacovitch.

Though Yacovitch said that a full understanding of these sites is a work in progress, the shallow water equipment tended to be smaller and older. Some of the small sites were even decommissioned and still emitting methane. The deep water rigs were much larger, and often manned constantly. Differences in maintenance or equipment age could account for some of these differences in emissions.

This kind of counterintuitive result is exactly why gathering this data is so important— because information is power.